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Odilon Redon
The faces we see in our dreams

Odilon Redon, The Artists
Portrait of Odilon Redon

Odilon Redon was born Bertrand-Jean Redon to a family of wealthy slave-traders. Concieved in New Orleans, but born in France, his youth was easy. Young Odilon, as his parents nicknamed him, drew and painted, and though he failed his entrance exams to the architecture program at École des Beaux-Arts, he dabbled in engraving, lithography, and sculpture through his 20s. It was the war that changed him.

“Charcoal does not allow kindness; it is sober, and only with real emotion can you draw results from it.”

When Odilon Redon was 30 years old, he put aside his brushes and engraving tools to fight in the Franco-Prussian war. A year later the French lost the bloody conflict, and Redon moved to Paris with a headful of bad dreams. Black visions filled his notebooks after the war. Charcoal drawings of creatures hang in empty space. Winged devils grip giant faces with empty eye sockets. Ears sprout bat wings, and faces emerge from the backs of hairy spiders. Charles Darwin had published The Origin of Species two decades earlier, and the haunting concept of mutated life gripped Europe. Redon’s noirs, his charcoal abominations, illustrated our murky and prehistoric biology.

In 1884, Redon’s work was featured in Joris-Karl Huysmans’ novel À rebours, or Against Nature. It described the decadent perversities of an anti-hero who collected sinister artwork by Redon, Goya, and El Greco, and experimented with weird sex. This association with the macabre grew Redon’s notoriety, and his noirs remain among his most famous works.

“My drawings inspire, and are not to be defined. They place us, as does music, in the ambiguous realm of the undetermined.”

For Redon, science slowly grew to include the spiritual. The German idea of Naturphilosophie, that all living things are interconnected, layered into Buddhist and Hindu philosophy, brought color back into Redon’s world. By the 1890s, Redon worked almost exclusively in pastel, saying it “comforted” him. The spiders and spermatoid eyeballs were replaced by twigs of fresh branches, grasses and flowers. Even his Cyclops appears benevolent. His paintings are dreamscapes still, but they are meditative, quiet—finally at peace.

“The Artist submits from day to day to the fatal rhythm of the impulses of the universal world which encloses him, continual centre of sensations, always pliant, hypnotized by the marvels of nature which he loves, he scrutinizes. His eyes, like his soul, are in perpetual communion with the most fortuitous of phenomena.” — Odilon Redon


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Reed Enger, "Odilon Redon, The faces we see in our dreams," in Obelisk Art History, Published June 03, 2015; last modified September 19, 2022, http://arthistoryproject.com/artists/odilon-redon/.

Odilon Redon was a French artist born on April 22, 1840. Redon contributed to the Symbolist movement and died on July 6, 1916.

Figure, Odilon Redon

Figure 1876

Tears, Odilon Redon

Tears 1878

Gnome, Odilon Redon

Gnome 1879

The Cube, Odilon Redon

The Cube 1880

The Crying Spider, Odilon Redon

The Crying Spider 1881

The Smiling Spider, Odilon Redon

The Smiling Spider 1881

Les Origines — Cover, Odilon Redon

Les Origines — Cover 1883

Les Origines — Plate 1, Odilon Redon

Les Origines — Plate 1 1883

Les Origines — Plate 2, Odilon Redon

Les Origines — Plate 2 1883

Les Origines — Plate 3, Odilon Redon

Les Origines — Plate 3 1883

Christ, Odilon Redon

Christ 1887

Death: “My Irony Surpasses All Others”, Odilon Redon

Death: “My Irony Surpasses All Others” 1888

Closed Eyes, Odilon Redon

Closed Eyes 1889

Closed Eyes, Odilon Redon

Closed Eyes 1890

Cup of Cognition (The Children's Cup), Odilon Redon

Cup of Cognition (The Children's Cup) 1894

Hantise (Obsession), Odilon Redon

Hantise (Obsession) 1894

Christ In Silence, Odilon Redon

Christ In Silence 1897

Baronne de Domecy, Odilon Redon

Baronne de Domecy 1900

Centaur, Odilon Redon

Centaur 1895 – 1900

Pegasus and the Muse, Odilon Redon

Pegasus and the Muse 1900

Trees on a Yellow Background, Odilon Redon

Trees on a Yellow Background 1901

Buddha, Odilon Redon

Buddha 1910

Butterflies, Odilon Redon

Butterflies 1910

Roger et Angelica, Odilon Redon

Roger et Angelica 1910

Silence, Odilon Redon

Silence 1911

Large Green Vase with Mixed Flowers, Odilon Redon

Large Green Vase with Mixed Flowers 1910 – 1912

The Birth of Venus, Odilon Redon

The Birth of Venus 1912

The Cyclops, Odilon Redon

The Cyclops 1914

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To Myself: Notes on Life, Art and Artists, Recommended Reading

There are many books on Odilon Redon, but I always find the best books on artists are the ones they write themselves. Learn how Redon saw the world, directly from his personal journals.

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